Phoenix BoulderBlast blasts vending

It's been a rocky road for the Phoenix BoulderBlast (www.boulderblast.com), an annual spring climbers' get-together in Phoenix, Ariz. -- the largest in the nation. In 1999, a shortage of sponsorships forced the event's cancellation and it has been on the brink several other times. Now, a policy change is once again threatening the event's survival.
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It's been a rocky road for the Phoenix BoulderBlast (www.boulderblast.com), an annual spring climbers' get-together in Phoenix, Ariz. -- the largest in the nation. In 1999, a shortage of sponsorships forced the event's cancellation and it has been on the brink several other times. Now, a policy change is once again threatening the event's survival.

What started out as a grassroots bouldering competition, with 35 locals entering in 1983, has ballooned into a giant party that attracted over 720 competitors, 120 volunteers and around 2,500 spectators last year. Part of the draw for the event has long been the "flea market" where sponsors sold off both factory seconds and new products. In 2004, almost $65,000 of gear was sold in three days.

Obviously, in a relatively small market such as the Southwest, this amount of sales early in the climbing season has an impact on the local shops -- they can pretty much kiss full retail on rock shoes goodbye for the entire season. While lost sales in other categories is likely negligible, the overall message to climbers that gear should be expected for dirt cheap is bad for everyone.

According to Jim Waugh, the organizer, "It became quite clear that many of my larger and long-term sponsors -- The North Face, Prana, Climbing Magazine, etc. all felt that the PBB needed to move away from vending." Without their support, Waugh felt that relying on smaller sponsors alone would doom the event. Thus, the decision was made to no longer permit selling of products, much like at most other consumer events.

Predictably, this decision has resulted in an outcry from smaller sponsors, that may not have accounts in the area, and tightwad climbers upset over lost deals on gear. One sponsor that SNEWS® contacted predicted that the change "will be a disaster for the BoulderBlast, though we haven't reached a final decision yet on whether to attend."

Already feeling the impact, Waugh said, "I have lost many sponsors and expect minor losses in participants and spectators." Since some lament that the massive event has lost its local feel, it may not be a bad thing if it downscales somewhat. But, of course, this is a chicken-and-egg problem: if attendance drops off too much, fewer sponsors will be back and the downward spiral continues.

Waugh said, "I will probably not know until (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market) if the PBB is going to survive." Considering the event is scheduled only 12 weeks later (April 22-25), that isn't much time for anyone to make planning decisions.

SNEWS® View: Unlike participants at most other recreational sporting events, for example century bike tours or running races, climbers have been conditioned that schwag and massive discounting are the main reasons to attend events. This shortsightedness is bad for everyone so the decision to discontinue selling at the BoulderBlast is overdue.

But with a major incentive to attend withdrawn, the event will surely die unless climbers have other reasons to migrate to Phoenix. Watching hotshots compete on boulder problems just won't do it for most mortals who can't even pull up on the first holds. Nor will a giant drunken party or even slide shows and films.

Adding an extensive series of free or low cost clinics by famous athletes on all aspects of rock climbing would be a real enticement for out-of-state climbers. Watching Sharma win yet again is one thing, but getting tips from him in a small group would be a quantum jump on the cool-factor for a lot of climbers. The short seminars offered at Ouray are a major reason for the Ice Festival's great success in recent years -- these fill up months ahead of time now. Heck, since probably half the competitors are sponsored climbers anyhow, put them to work doing more than pulling on pebbles.

Changing the name from the Phoenix Bouldering Competition to the Phoenix BoulderBlast two years ago was a step in the right direction. Eliminating the discounted gear is another. But it will take a few more steps to ensure this event really blasts off.

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